Researchers have long recognized that a massive release of greenhouse gases, probably carbon dioxide or methane, occurred during the PETM. Surface temperatures also rose in many places by as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit in the (relative) geological instant of about 100,000 years.
Arctic sediment samples were largely unavailable until 2004, when ACEX scientists recovered the first deep-ocean sediment samples from beneath the ice-laden waters near the North Pole. ACEX, only the second scientific expedition to be conducted by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (established 2003), recovered 339 meters of subseafloor sediment samples.
"Building a picture of ancient climatic events is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and what ACEX allowed us to do was fill in a blank section of the PETM picture," said Gerald Dickens, a Rice University geochemist and co-author, who conducted the initial, shipboard chemical analyses of all the ACEX core samples.
"The ACEX cores clearly show that the Arctic got very warm and wet during the PETM," Dickens said. "Even tropical marine plants thrived in the balmy conditions."
In today's oceans, certain species of microscopic plants are known to rapidly multiply and create algal blooms. Dickens said that fossils of these plants ?known only to originate in the tropics before the PETM ?are commonly seen in the ACEX cores. Furthermore, th e chemistry of the organic carbon in the ACEX cores may rule out some earlier theories about what caused the PETM. The diminution of these alternate explanations strongly suggests that an enormous amount of carbon entered the atmosphere at the beginning of the PETM, either from volcanic eruptions, or the melting of oceanic gas hydrates ?mixtures of methane and ice on the seafloor.